In a cheerfully decorated classroom in Kharkiv, 30km (19 miles) from the Russian border, a screen behind the teacher proclaimed the date to be “21 September: international day of peace”.
The children’s day had begun far from peacefully: just after 5.30am, the air raid sirens sounded and six Russian S300 surface-to-air missiles hit the eastern Ukrainian city.
Nevertheless, today there were lessons in maths, Ukrainian and English – as well as a visit from a police officer, Oleksandr Polishchuk.
Polishchuk gave the nine-year-olds a road-safety talk on using zebra crossings and underpasses. But not before he had covered a couple of other topics.
“There is martial law at the moment,” he said, “and it’s really important not to ignore air raid sirens. Also, you mustn’t stand next to the windows during an air raid. Do you know why?”
“Because you might get injured by breaking glass,” offered one little girl.
The lesson continued. “If you see something like this,” he said, showing the children pictures of different types of landmine, “absolutely do not touch it, poke it, or throw stones at it. Walk back, exactly retracing your steps, at least 50 to 100 metres – and tell your parents.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than the content of the lesson, though, was the fact it was taking place at all.
After the full-scale invasion Kharkiv was nightly pummelled by missiles as battle raged for control of the city. Here, as throughout Ukraine, schooling shifted online.
Most parts of the country have resumed in-person teaching. But for Kharkiv, as well as for other frontline cities and regions such as Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Donbas, which are regularly subject to Russian attacks, schooling has remained online, just as during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Until now, that is. Kharkiv city authorities have hit on a simple plan to bring in-person school back, but in the safest possible place: inside the city’s deep metro system.
After all, at the height of the bombing last year, 160,000 people slept on the wide platforms and in the lofty corridors of the Kharkiv underground, and among them, said Kharkiv’s head of education, Olha Demenko, were 7,000 children.
“We did activities like playing and singing with them during that time – and, when this new school year was ahead of us, we wondered: what if we could do it again, but in a more organised way?”
The urgency is clear. Between the ravages of Covid-19 and the full-scale invasion, school resumed in person only for the slim sliver of time between September 2021 and February 2022.
For younger children, the continued lack of contact with teachers, and socialisation with other children, is likely to have serious and growing consequences, said Demenko – “and that is what’s encouraged us to introduce this type of schooling”.
Then there are the psychological impacts of the war to consider – especially given events such as the previous night’s attack. “There are all sorts of potential problems of anxiety and stress that don’t necessarily show themselves now but may well do later,” she said.
At University metro station in the city’s central Svobody Square, the underground school, one of five dotted around various metro stops in the city, is reached through one of the station’s regular entrances – right in front of the heavily damaged city hall, its windows blown out and boarded up.
Instead of following commuters down to the platform, though, pupils enter a corridor beneath an elaborate Soviet-era ceramic mural. This long space now houses a row of narrow temporary classrooms. On the other side of the corridor, windows give out on to the train platform below.
Heavy Soviet-era chandeliers have been removed to make way for new lighting that mimics daylight as much as possible, and a new heating and ventilation system regulates the temperature and air quality. Sound insulation means the trains are virtually inaudible from the classrooms.
The subterranean schools are presently accommodating a maximum of 1,100 pupils in 64 classes, 27 of those for children in year one. “It’s crucial for the young ones to get this opportunity,” said Demenko. “Because of the pandemic, the smallest ones weren’t even able to go to kindergarten.”
Purely voluntary, the in-person classes are attended by children three mornings or afternoons a week, while online classes continue in parallel. Pupils arrive either by underground – the safest option – or are bussed in.
On 21 September, some classrooms were a little depleted. The bus service from some of the outer suburbs had been paused until the air raid alerts were lifted.
But the children who had made it in were enthusiastic about their return to their cheerful classrooms festooned with posters of Ukrainian literary heroes, flowers and butterflies – despite the lack of daylight and open air.
Many of the children had recently returned from abroad, but Ihor, eight, had been in Ukraine throughout the full-scale invasion, while his mother served in the army.
“It’s better at school than online,” he said. “It’s easier to study offline with a real teacher. And you can play Lego together.” There was no football in the improvised school, with its small, narrow play area. “I wish!” said Ihor’s classmate, Mark.
Quietly stationed at the back of every classroom was a counsellor and psychologist – in Mark and Ihor’s class, the latter was working with Misha, a pupil with special needs. And alongside the tiny play area is a sick bay with a nurse on hand.
With lessons in mine avoidance and air raid awareness, there is a fine line to be drawn between informing the children, and terrifying them.
But, said Demenko, “with neighbours like the Russians so close, our children will never be safe. We are having to form a new philosophy of security for our children. The most pressing thing for our children is their lives and their safety: everything else can come second.”
The project is still a pilot, and at a comparatively small scale. Kharkiv has 111,000 children of school age, only 52,000 of whom are currently living in the city. The subterranean schools are teaching 1,100 of them.
But, said Demenko, they are looking at other city metro stations, with a view to extending the scheme if there is demand.
“It’s never been done before, and I wish it hadn’t had to be done now,” she said of the project. “We don’t think it’s an achievement or a victory to have done this – but unfortunately, it is a necessity.”